Archives For Avatar

I have a confession to make, I love award shows. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the pomp and pageantry, maybe it’s the idea of a shared cultural experience, maybe I’m just drawn to fabulously wealthy people giving each other statues. Whatever the reason, barring a few exceptions, if there’s an award show on, I’m generally watching. So it’s a given that I’ll be tuning into the 82nd Annual Academy Awards tonight. So as long as I’m doing that, why don’t we examine the nominees from a Pagan perspective.

Avatar’s pantheism vs. monotheistic morality: If there’s one dominant theme this year, it’s James Cameron’s “Avatar” vs. just about everybody else. Will the highest grossing movie of all time, the one that sends conservative Christians into fits, also take home the critical accolades of its peers? Most critics are split on whether Avatar, up for nine Oscars, will sweep the big awards, or if it will be shut out by critical darling “The Hurt Locker”. What’s fascinating when looking at the best picture, best director, and top acting awards, is that if Avatar is a showpiece for pantheism, then it’s up against a slate of films very much centered in Judeo-Christian morality (to different extents). From the evangelical dark-horse hit “The Blind Side”, to the vengeful Jews of “Inglourious Basterds” (and the suffering Jew in “A Serious Man”), to the redemption-song of “Precious”. We’ll have to wait and see if the pagan CGI blue people can win it, though Vanity Fair seems pretty certain of “Avatar” bringing home the best picture award.

“So, you’re left with Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker. One made mega-billions; the other isn’t even posting its box-office results for its Oscar re-release. One ends with its hero suffering shell-shocked ennui and masochistically heading once more into the breach; the other ends with a bulimic blue Ewok rave party and true love conquering all, even American capitalism. Because that’s what connects today’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with Louis B. Mayer’s, faith in a simple movie formula that never seems to wear: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy turns into giant blue alien. All in 3-D!”

There’s a part of me that still has a hard time believing that box-office populism (and “rampant pantheism”) will win out at the Oscars, but then, the lightweight but popular Shakespeare in Love did win best picture once, as did “Dances With Wolves”, which “Avatar” is compared to quite often.

Other films to watch for: It’s often the smaller categories where we find interesting films for a Pagan sensibility. For instance, in the Animated Feature Film category you have Neil Gaiman’s darkly inviting otherworld-traveling “Coraline” and the (for better or for worse) Voodoo-drenched Disney production “The Princess and the Frog”. There’s also the little-seen Celtic myth-drenched film “The Secret of Kells”.

You may also want to see if “Food, Inc”, which examines food production in America, wins an award.

Beyond that, pickings get even slimmer. Will the imagination vs. base desires weirdness of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” take home a statue? Will they throw a bone to the latest Harry Potter flick? Will the Golden Dawn/Masonic occult conspiracies of “Sherlock Holmes” garner an art direction award? Will they give an award to Helen Mirren simply because she’s so awesome? We’ll find out tonight. See you at the red carpet!

For those of you who like to keep track of Pagan and occult themes in pop-culture and the arts, I’ve got a few goodies to share. First, online magazines Right Where You Are Sitting Now and Dangerous Minds profile a new short (7 & 1/2 minute) film by Brian Butler entitled “Night of Pan”.

“‘Night of Pan’ is a seven and a half minute film featuring film auteur Kenneth Anger and actor Vincent Gallo. The film has been screened in various versions internationally – Beijing, Lisbon, Cannes, Athens, Rome, Berlin and elsewhere, but never in Butler’s base, Los Angeles. In the film, Anger, Gallo, and Butler depict an occult ritual that symbolizes the stage of ego death in the process of spiritual attainment.”

If you’re going to do a short ritualistic art-film, there’s no finer stamp of approval than getting Kenneth Anger (the undisputed master of the genre, and long-time Thelemite) to co-star in it. After it’s finished making the festival rounds, maybe they’ll post the whole thing to Youtube?

Turning from short art-films with Pagan and occult themes to long big-budget historical films with pagan themes, I have some “Agora” (the film about Hypatia of Alexandria) news to share. While Americans are still awaiting an official release date for the film, in Spain it has garnered 13 Goya Award nominations from the Spanish Film Academy.

“[Alejandro] Amenabar said at the ceremony in the Academy building that it had been “a great year for Spanish cinema” and was quick to push the worth of his fellow nominees, Agora co-scriptwriter Mateo Gil and lead actress Rachel Weisz.”

Now if we can only get a release date! Perhaps the new flurry of international acclaim and press will speed things along?

In a final “and water’s wet” sort of note, Vatican media isn’t pleased with the pantheistic elements of the global mega-blockbuster “Avatar”, criticizing it for turning “creation” into a “divinity to worship”.

“L’Osservatore said the film “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” Similarly, Vatican Radio said it “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium.” “Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship,” the radio said.”

And while we should never conflate Vatican media with the official opinion of the Pope, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi did state that these views “reflect” Benedict XVI’s opinions on the matter. Indeed, how could they not?  The pontiff has a long history of warning against the dangers of “neo-paganism”, especially within the context of environmental concerns. I’m sure Ross Douthat is excited to be so “on the same page” as his spiritual authority.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Top Story: The BBC leads with a story about ritual child-killings in Uganda, saying that the problem may be more widespread than previously thought. At the center of this investigation is former witch-doctor turned anti-sacrifice campaigner Polino Angela, who claims that he himself sacrificed children, including his own son.

When he returned to Uganda he says he was told by those who had initiated him to kill his own son, aged 10. “I deceived my wife and made sure that everyone else had gone away and I was with my child alone. Once he was placed down on the ground, I used a big knife and brought it down like a guillotine.”

That sounds truly horrific, and the BBC rightly asks him if he’s willing to be prosecuted for the 70 people he claims to have killed in his former witch-doctoring life. The answer may (or may not) surprise you.

Asked if he was afraid he might now be prosecuted as a result of confessing to killing 70 people, he said: “I have been to all the churches… and they know me as a warrior in the drive to end witchcraft that involves human sacrifice, so I think that alone should indemnify me and have me exonerated.”

After that quote, I started questioning the validity of the entire article. It isn’t that I don’t believe children aren’t being abducted, abused, and killed in several African nations. There’s of plenty of evidence for that. I also acknowledge that some witch-doctors are indeed killing and mutilating certain children for various reasons. But the following portrait painted by the BBC, with help from Mr. Angela, raises many of my old “Satanic Panic” red flags. How often did we see former “Satanists” who claimed to have participated in murders and kidnappings, yet never bothered turning themselves into the police for one reason or another. There are other flags, a “nationwide network” of witch-doctors, with a “boss” who takes a cut of all the money, for example. To reiterate, I do think children are being harmed, and I think some of those harming children may in fact be witch doctors, but I’m deeply skeptical of some of the claims being raised here. They sound a little too perfect and well-organized to be fully true.

In Other News: New York city councilman, and practicing Theodsman, Dan Halloran, has been enjoying his recent electoral victory at a series of swearing-ins, functions, and parties. Connor Adams Sheets at brings us an account of Halloran’s January 3rd swearing-in at the Fort Totten Officer’s Club in Bayside.

“The fete was a joyous end to a bitter campaign during which Halloran’s pagan faith was used against him; accusations of racism were cast by the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Kevin Kim; and both camps’ political rhetoric often degenerated into mudslinging. Beginning with the national anthem sung by Bayside cantor Margaret Abel and a rousing performance by a police bagpipe group, the ceremony was filled with humor, back-slapping and enthusiasm about the work Halloran will do for his native district over the next four years. Halloran pledged to uphold during his term the conservative principles he campaigned on by working to reduce taxes and help small business owners and middle-class families.”

Several local Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside), and Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), showed up to the event, perhaps signaling an openness to bipartisan cooperation from both sides. We will, of course, be watching his political career with interest in the coming four years.

Want another perspective on “Avatar”? I hope that answer is “yes”, because here is author and techgnostic Erik Davis weighing in, saying that perhaps the film is more “ayahuasca lite” than “noble savage mysticism”.

“OK, maybe I am the one smoking something. But if there is an aya-Avatar connection, it would explain one crucial way in which the film differs from conventional “noble savage” mysticism. Rather than ground the Na’vi’s grooviness in their folklore or spiritual purity, the film instead presents the vision of a direct and material communications link with the plant mind. Which means that Eyra does not have to be believed—she can be experienced. After the temporary fusion with the Tree of Souls that fails to prevent her death, Weaver’s chain-smoking left-brain doctor happily confirms Ewya’s existence. Like the Vine of Souls now wending its way through the developed world, the Tree of Souls becomes a kind of bio-mystical media, a visionary communications matrix that uplinks the souls of the dead and the network mind of the ecosphere itself.”

So perhaps “Avatar” isn’t so much about pagan pantheism, but instead about communicating with the “plant mind”?  Then again, perhaps the film is whatever people want it to be. Different meanings for different minds. Wouldn’t that mean it’s great art? Perhaps the clunky dialog and trite plot are merely there as a prop for a mystical experience?

For those of you awaiting the “Lords of Chaos” movie adaptation, starring teen heartthrob Jackson Rathbone as Varg Vikernes, it looks like plans have changed. Rathbone is out due to “scheduling conflicts”, the production time-table has been shifted, and the plot of the film may be getting an overhaul. That last tidbit of news coming from Vikernes himself.

“Now, they are apparently basing the story of this movie not on my story, but on the ‘Lords Of Chaos’ story. Unfortunately the ‘Lords Of Chaos’ story is not only nonsense; incoherent and utterly contradictive, but it is also very lacking in information regarding the lives and traits of the individuals to be included as characters in the movie. One could easily think that this would make it impossible for anybody to make a movie based on this book, but of course if you simply fill in the holes yourself…”

With the movie seemingly in chaos, will they proceed? Will they pull a “Velvet Goldmine” and fictionalize the story to avoid more problems with the living-breathing subjects they want to tell a story about? Will the film get stuck in development hell? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

In a final note, the Indian Express reports on a relatively new development, girls publicly performing Vedic prayer-chants, something that has been considered taboo for many Indians.

“Eight all-girl teams lined up on a foggy Delhi morning, raised their faces towards the sun and chanted Vedic suktas (prayers). In four minutes each, they breached with ease barriers that most Indian women are still not allowed to approach. The Vedic chanting event was part of the three-day Inter-School Value Festival held at the Sri Satya Sai Vidya Vihar Girls’ Public School, Kalkaji. Eight of 11 Sri Satya Sai Schools in North India are taking part in the event that began on Tuesday. “Vedic chanting by women was a social taboo in India, but things have started improving. In many parts of the country, women chanting suktas are still frowned upon,” said one of the judges at the competition, requesting anonymity.”

Let’s hear it for the breaking down of outmoded barriers, and for the freedom of women to publicly praise the goddesses, gods, and elements, of their homeland.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

A Few Quick Notes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 27, 2009 — 15 Comments

I just have a few small items to share this Sunday before we gear up for the year-end count-downs and retrospectives, starting with SF Gate columnist Mark Morford, who argues that all the discussions about pantheism in “Avatar” are besides the point, what it’s really about is “alien porn”.

“But wait, we haven’t hit the best part yet. Because in this movie, you don’t merely get to fantasize about the Other from afar or even just indulge in interspecies sex. You get to literally become one of them … Behold, the ultimate in guilty colonialist fetish fantasy epic porn filmmaking, ever. Flawed, broken white man can, with his righteous modern technology, fuse his DNA with super-hot exotic sexually flawless alien species and become the Other and save the world and then score the hot chick from Star Trek.”

Somehow, I don’t think this new angle is going to please Ross Douthat and other conservative commentators much more than the “Hollywood is pantheist” one. For that matter, I doubt it will please the folks who’ve seen “Avatar” and found it to be a deeply transcendent/meaningful experience. As an aside, since we’re talking about movies, I saw “Sherlock Holmes” last night, and was surprised that the entire plot centered on a Freemason/Golden Dawn-ish occult order. By “centered on”, I mean it provided some sort of plot when things weren’t blowing up. It was quite the romp if you turn your expectations down a few notches.

The clinically obsessed folks at the Christian Civic League of Maine continue to stalk Rita Moran, Chair of the Kennebec County Democratic Committee, who was one of two openly Pagan delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Not content with trespassing on private property, or trying to make her book store sound sinister by listing titles found at any Barnes & Noble, they are now engaging in their own sad form of “deep background” looking for some sort of controversy. First it was misquoting a podcast interview she did in 2007, now they are combing through her past involvement with the EarthTides Pagan Network.

“The identities of the members of these organizations are often kept secret. Moran is active in the EarthTides Pagan Network under the pseudonym “Arwen Evenstar.” Under this pseudonym, Moran has written a book review column in the group’s newsletter for the past several years.”

This situation is so sad and pathological, all in an attempt to ruin Moran’s standing with local Democrats.

“It is a sad commentary on politics in Maine that the highest levels of the Democrat Party rely on an occultist whose political prudence consists of Tarot Card reading and crystal-ball gazing; and whose leadership effectiveness is a matter of casting the right spell.”

This one-man “staff” of the Christian Civic League really needs to get a life. It just goes to show you how bothered some Christians get when any other religious perspective dares to seek political power instead of staying silently in the shadows. They try to make sinister activities that would be seen as sanctified and proper if done in a Christian context. This strife only underlines how important our involvement in the public sphere is, and why the “broom closet” must become a thing of the past.

In a final note, the Pagans at the Parliament project seems to be winding down. The last of the video and audio has been posted to the blog, and we have had several post-Parliament missives from attendees, including a statement from Angie Buchanan, one of the Pagan Executive Board members of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. Buchanan addresses the recent flurry of discussion and controversy regarding definitions, and what was (and wasn’t ) said and done in Paganism’s name at the Parliament.

“In my personal participation and my observation of what happened at the Parliament, there was no attempt to “legitimize” anything, nor was there an effort to ostracize anything. There were many very successful attempts to explain concepts, terms and belief structures in ways and using vocabulary understood by those either unfamiliar with or frightened by our practices — by providing them with a frame of reference.”

Despite the flare-up over definition, and who said what at the Parliament, a situation that I take some responsibility in spreading, I do think this event will be seen as pivotal in modern Paganism’s history. Never before have we been so visible and vocal on the world stage, and I believe some paradigm-shifting happened that may greatly benefit all modern Pagans in the long run. I genuinely thank all the Pagans who took the time and effort to be involved with this event, and made our varied voices and viewpoints heard in the context of the global interfaith movement. What happened was important, I believe that we will ultimately experience more signal than noise as we process our involvement there in the coming year.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

The New York Times conservative columnist (and blogger) Ross Douthat seems like a fairly smart guy, but he tends to lose his cool whenever his theological buttons (he’s Catholic) get pushed. Remember his “living in Dan Brown’s America” freak-out from May? Now he’s wound-up again over James Cameron’s new CGI opus “Avatar”, and how it’s symptomatic of a deep-rooted commitment to pantheism amongst Hollywood’s elite.

“It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing. If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

Douthat pokes pantheism saying it romanticizes nature instead of acknowledging the “suffering and death” of our world (with just a pinch of the conservative environmentalism = pagan religion meme, and a dash of despair over America’s syncretism added for spice). That it offers no transcendent literalism as the dominant monotheisms do, instead damning its adherents to simply being “dust and ashes”.

Smelling chum in the waters, Beliefnet’s conservative blogger, Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher, decided to join in on the anti-pantheism pile-on. Bemoaning how Hollywood has suffered a “creative defeat” by “trading in its sentimentalized version of Christianity” for a “sentimentalized pantheism”, (he also seems to misunderstand the concept of panentheism in relation to Orthodox Christianity, but that’s a different topic) and linking to Weekly Standard neoconservative commentator John Podhoretz’s review of the film.

“…one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar-with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool-at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now.”

So I guess the conservative intelligentsia has spoken (David Brooks must not have gotten the memo). Pantheism is bad, Hollywood is bad, Americans are foolish eclectic-syncretic Eckhart Tolle-reading dupes who love pantheism, and we (and our souls) are all in big (I assume) trouble. Of course this reading of Hollywood’s output is a tad skewed, and relies on a rather scatter-shot selection of films (“Dances With Wolves”, Disney’s “Pocahontas” and “The Lion King”, “Star Wars”, and, well, “Fern Gully”, I guess) to convince us that pantheism is the with-it thing in Hollywood and beyond. But it just doesn’t seem to line up as well as they seem to think it does. I mean, isn’t Harry Potter supposed to be all stealth-Christian underneath the spells and hexes? Is the Dan Brown gnosticism panic over and done? What about Star Trek’s secular rationalist populism? Where’s the outrage there?

It seems to me that this is all just a big excuse to write about how America’s going to heck in a hand-basket because Christianity isn’t being treated like the cool kid at the pop-cultural lunch table in a few films. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Cameron’s “Avatar” (which I haven’t seen yet), from claims that it’s visually repetitive of his past work, that it peddles old white-guilt fantasies, or that it’s filled with clunky “godawful” dialogue, but pantheism? Really? That’s the awful thing that really stands out? Just wait, after “Hypatia”, the “Clash of the Titans” remake, and the “Percy Jackson” adaptation hit theaters in 2010, it’ll be polytheism, not pantheism, that’s the real problem. I look forward to the forthcoming Ross Douthat column on the subject.

For more Pagan commentary on “Avatar”, check out Chas Clifton’s musings on “creeping pantheism”, Adrian J. Ivakhiv’s review that notes the “pagan mythology with a sledgehammer” aspects of the film, and Kvond’s philosophical and multiple-hyphenated take on the whole thing. Have you seen “Avatar” yet? What do you think? Creeping pantheism? Popcorn-munching eye-candy? Something else?